Classical-pop piano duo Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Roe. Photo by Ken Schles.

Classical Note: Inside and Out of the Concert Hall

Cliburn Concerts 

The struggle of classical music organizations to find new audiences and new ways to reach audiences continues with interesting results from Fort Worth’s Cliburn Foundation. Expanding beyond the confines of its traditional grand recital series at Bass Performance Hall, the organization has for several years presented major living composers in relaxed chamber music events at the Museum of Modern Art. This year, the Foundation expanded in two other directions.

Last week, a series of recitals and chamber music concerts at the poshly appointed, acoustically admirable new Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum continued with a duo recital by husband-wife cello-piano team David Finckel and Wu Han in a solidly-played, adamantly traditional program of Russian music from the first half of the 20th century.

(Incidentally, I can’t help wondering if the sophisticated audience that shows up at Cliburn concerts really needs one of the performers to verbally point out that yes, it’s all Russian, and yes, these guys wrote a lot of interesting music—particularly when there’s a nicely-written program note in hand already. I, for one, would rather just hear the music.)

Three weeks ago, however, the Foundation moved in a completely non-traditional direction, presenting the duo piano team of Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe at Live Oak Music Hall and Lounge, a trendy club-and-restaurant venue south of downtown Fort Worth. The atmosphere was decidedly casual, and this jaded old music critic was impressed by the impeccable technique and musicianship of the duo.

It’s telling, however, that sections ripped from larger works of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky weren’t entirely convincing in this setting: though it’s great to sip a libation while enjoying The Rite of Spring, I kept wishing I could hear the whole piece in a concert hall. Not surprisingly, the beautifully crafted, brilliantly played two-piano arrangements of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” made the most sense in that setting.

That of course leads to two key questions: does hearing a bleeding chunk of a Rachmaninoff Suite or a Stravinsky ballet score lure the novice listener to eventually head over to the concert hall? And to what extent is it the function of the Cliburn Foundation and other classical music organizations to present and promote works of Michael Jackson and Radiohead? It would seem these artists never had any trouble selling tickets or records without the assistance of nonprofit, tax-exempt, donor-supported organizations.

Dallas Symphony Orchestra Concert

One musician we would not mind seeing again in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, either on the concert stage or in the opera pit, is Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša. In Sunday afternoon’s concert with the Dallas Symphony at Meyerson Symphony Center, the fourth of four performances of a program for which he was guest conductor, Hrůša proved himself to be an elegant communicator with a firm intellectual command of the music as well as a remarkable sensitivity to symphonic timbre.

It was in the second half of the program, after intermission, that we got the best of Hrůša, when he turned to the music of his native Czech Republic. Dvorak’s The Water Goblin opened the pairing, followed by Janacek’s reliably goosebump-raising Sinfonietta, with an impressive thirteen-player brass ensemble arrayed across the front of the choral terrace behind the main orchestra. Although he’s clearly at ease across a wide repertoire, Hrůša, like many musicians, has a particular insight into his national repertoire—in his case on a profound level. It’s tempting to imagine him in the orchestra pit for an opera of Janacek, Dvorak, Smetana, or Martinu, or up on the concert stage for the orchestral or choral-orchestral works of any of those composers.

Czech Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, who is 19 years old and built like a basketball player, joined Hrůša and the orchestra before intermission for Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. In terms of program selection, this was the weak spot on the concert (which had opened nobly with Brahms’ Tragic Overture). Lisiecki has plenty of sensitivity and technical power to spare; and, while the concerto is full of moments of romantic-era beauty, these sometimes ravishing ideas were unfortunately forced into classical form simply because the composer (all of twenty years old when he completed the piece) simply didn’t know better, and hadn’t developed the ability to create new and original foundations as he did in his later masterpieces. A more succinct work for piano and orchestra would have been a better fit in the concert.